In recent years, the public has been concerned about the prolific amount of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) in the environment and their potential health effects. These chemicals are in the environment, in water and soil, and people may be exposed by drinking or eating contaminated foods or swallowing or breathing contaminated dust or soil. Most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAs and have them in their blood.
PFAs are a group of chemicals used in industry and consumer products. There are thousands of different PFAs. The chemical structure of PFAs has a fluorinated carbon chain, partially or fully fluorinated, connected to different functional groups. One of the main concerns is that many of these break down very slowly and can build up in people, animals, and the environment over time.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “current peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to:
- Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.
- Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes.
- Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.
- Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response.
- Interference with the body’s natural hormones.
- Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.”
As a result of these studies, PFAs, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), two of the most widely used chemicals in the PFAS group, have been replaced in the United States with other PFAS in recent years.
Some workers may have higher exposures to PFAs than the general population. A person’s occupation and work activities can impact the specific PFAs to which they are exposed. Some occupations that are known to have higher exposures are chemical manufacturing workers, fire fighters, and ski wax technicians. OSHA does not have any standard for PFAs although the American Conference for Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has established Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) for three of them in air, perfluoroisobutylene (PFIB), perfluorobutyl ethylene, and ammonium perfluorooctanoate (APFO)—a salt of PFOA.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is “leading, supporting, and collaborating with other governmental and academic researchers to assess exposures to PFAS currently in use as well as the associated routes of exposure and potential health impacts. Researchers are also developing analytical methods for the measurement of PFA exposures in the workplace.”
Evaluating the health effects of PFAs in workers is a major task. Employers should determine if employees are being exposed to PFAs, obtain the best information about these specific chemicals, and lessen and control exposure.